“You can never really see the future, only imagine it, then try to make sense of the new world when it arrives.
Just a few years ago, climate projections for this century looked quite apocalyptic, with most scientists warning that continuing “business as usual” would bring the world four or even five degrees Celsius of warming — a change disruptive enough to call forth not only predictions of food crises and heat stress, state conflict and economic strife, but, from some corners, warnings of civilizational collapse and even a sort of human endgame. (Perhaps you’ve had nightmares about each of these and seen premonitions of them in your newsfeed.)
Now, with the world already 1.2 degrees hotter, scientists believe that warming this century will most likely fall between two or three degrees. (A United Nations report released this week ahead of the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, confirmed that range.) A little lower is possible, with much more concerted action; a little higher, too, with slower action and bad climate luck. Those numbers may sound abstract, but what they suggest is this: Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.
For decades, visions of possible climate futures have been anchored by, on the one hand, Pollyanna-like faith that normality would endure, and on the other, millenarian intuitions of an ecological end of days, during which perhaps billions of lives would be devastated or destroyed. More recently, these two stories have been mapped onto climate modeling: Conventional wisdom has dictated that meeting the most ambitious goals of the Paris agreement by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees could allow for some continuing normal, but failing to take rapid action on emissions, and allowing warming above three or even four degrees, spelled doom.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes As rising temperatures force animals to migrate, vector-borne diseases like those caused by the yellow fever, dengue and Zika viruses will proliferate via mosquitoes. To stop the spread, the biotechnology company Oxitec has engineered a breed of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that produce only viable male offspring, which are nonbiting. These mosquitoes are intended to mate with wild populations and lead, ultimately, to the collapse of those populations. The company led its first pilot project in 2021, releasing approximately four million mosquitoes into the Florida Keys. Here, a scientist transports genetically modified mosquitoes to release them.
Neither of those futures looks all that likely now, with the most terrifying predictions made improbable by decarbonization and the most hopeful ones practically foreclosed by tragic delay. The window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption but also billions of people, well past climate normal and yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse.
Over the last several months, I’ve had dozens of conversations — with climate scientists and economists and policymakers, advocates and activists and novelists and philosophers — about that new world and the ways we might conceptualize it. Perhaps the most capacious and galvanizing account is one I heard from Kate Marvel of NASA, a lead chapter author on the fifth National Climate Assessment: “The world will be what we make it.” Personally, I find myself returning to three sets of guideposts, which help map the landscape of possibility.
First, worst-case temperature scenarios that recently seemed plausible now look much less so, which is inarguably good news and, in a time of climate panic and despair, a truly underappreciated sign of genuine and world-shaping progress.
Second, and just as important, the likeliest futures still lie beyond thresholds long thought disastrous, marking a failure of global efforts to limit warming to “safe” levels. Through decades of only minimal action, we have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps even more concerning, the more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem. In a news release accompanying its report, the United Nations predicted that a world more than two degrees warmer would lead to “endless suffering.”
Third, humanity retains an enormous amount of control — over just how hot it will get and how much we will do to protect one another through those assaults and disruptions. Acknowledging that truly apocalyptic warming now looks considerably less likely than it did just a few years ago pulls the future out of the realm of myth and returns it to the plane of history: contested, combative, combining suffering and flourishing — though not in equal measure for every group.
It isn’t easy to process this picture very cleanly, in part because climate action remains an open question, in part because it is so hard to balance the scale of climate transformation against possible human response and in part because we can no longer so casually use those handy narrative anchors of apocalypse and normality. But in narrowing our range of expected climate futures, we’ve traded one set of uncertainties, about temperature rise, for another about politics and other human feedbacks. We know a lot more now about how much warming to expect, which makes it more possible to engineer a response. That response still begins with cutting emissions, but it is no longer reasonable to believe that it can end there. A politics of decarbonization is evolving into a politics beyond decarbonization, incorporating matters of adaptation and finance and justice (among other issues). If the fate of the world and the climate has long appeared to hinge on the project of decarbonization, a clearer path to two or three degrees of warming means that it also now depends on what is built on the other side. Which is to say: It depends on a new and more expansive climate politics.
“We live in a terrible world, and we live in a wonderful world,” Marvel says. “It’s a terrible world that’s more than a degree Celsius warmer. But also a wonderful world in which we have so many ways to generate electricity that are cheaper and more cost-effective and easier to deploy than I would’ve ever imagined. People are writing credible papers in scientific journals making the case that switching rapidly to renewable energy isn’t a net cost; it will be a net financial benefit,” she says with a head-shake of near-disbelief. “If you had told me five years ago that that would be the case, I would’ve thought, wow, that’s a miracle.”
David Lindsay: This is an excellent magazine article by David Wallace-Wells on the climate crisis, with complicated negative comments, by many who feel it is childishly optimistic. I beg to differ. This is a cold-eyed piece of really good news, wrapped in an appreciation of failure. It calls me and you to work harder.